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'I don’t know how they did it:' Retirement home looks back on East Troublesome Fire evacuation

One hundred residents, some with significant medical needs, had to move quickly as the East Troublesome Fire approached in 2020.

ESTES PARK, Colo. — This time last year, Julie Lee was making 'just in case' emergency plans due to the threat of the Cameron Peak Fire, burning several miles from the retirement community where she works. 

That's when the East Troublesome Fire made its way over the Continental Divide and changed everything.

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"At that time, we didn’t know if we had an hour to evacuate," said Lee the administrator of Good Samaritan Society's Estes Park Village. "As swiftly as that fire moved through Grand Lake and Granby the night before, we didn’t know."

Louise Reeves, a retiree who lives at the community said she was caught by surprise.

"No, at first, you know you're not worried because it's on the other side, but once it hopped over the top, we then we had a problem," Reeves said. "We get a lot of wind here."

Reeves had to decide what to pack and what to put at risk of the fire.

"It's frustrating to know what to take, but you have to do what's necessary," she said.

Steve Murphree also had to evacuate. He said moving his wife was a challenge.

"I really wasn't scared," he said. "I didn't want to be and present myself as being scared because of my wife. She's ill and she scares easy. It was very stressful for her, I think more than most people. She didn't know where she was and she was in unfamiliar surroundings and it was awful hard on her."

Lee said 16 of the retirees had significant medical needs, posing logistical challenges. She had to evacuate 100 residents in total.

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Residents had apartments available at other Good Samaritan Society retirement communities in Greeley, Fort Collins and Windsor. Or, they could go with friends or loved ones.

"A hundred people, finding them places to go, if they're going with family, if they're going with staff, did they have everything they needed?" Lee said.  "We got everything rolling pretty quick. The first bus arrived probably around 12:30 and by 2:00, we had the campus pretty much evacuated."

Murphree said he never felt a sense of panic.

"I don’t know how they did it," he said. "I don’t know what the logistics were but they did it."

They were all displaced for about a week. The fire was stopped before it hit the town of Estes Park. 

"Living out of a suitcase is not for seniors," Murphree said. "They don't do well."

Reeves said she was glad to return.

"The feeling that I was home again," Reeves said. "It's just never any fun to be uprooted."

Lee was recognized by the Good Samaritan Society as the "National Administrator of the Year" for how she dealt with the evacuation and the pandemic.

"Communication was a big piece of it. We wanted to make sure that everybody knew where the end points were," Lee said. "If they're going through hard times or struggles to know that they can count of the staff to be (there) for them."

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